Thursday, August 30, 2012

Culinary Adventures in China

Subtitle: Stirfry for Fun and Profit

Culinary Adventures in the Chinese House, after a long and unnoticed absence, now rejoins the adventures of our trusty heroine and throws in a hero to make the commentary more interesting. We are living in Nanjing, China for the year and eating things that make us feel brave. Not the live hedgehogs they sell in the market. No one needs to eat the hedgehogs to feel brave.

The trick about living and cooking in China for many of my homegirls is this: they don't sell food that you recognize.

We shall overcome this small inconvenience as I show you what we've managed to discover using the types of things they do sell. Except for the hedgehogs. And the entire pig's face. I'm, um, not really sure the entire pig's face would fit in my wok. Thank you. It was very kind of you to offer, though.

The nice thing about stirfry for fun and profit is that it is rather affordable. I have set a budget of 50 RMB (about $7.50 US) to feed my husband and I for three meals a day and find that I can do it deliciously if I shop at the street markets. I think I'll make a separate post sometime about buying things at the street markets. Today we'll just talk about cooking them.

To create the following meal, you will require:

• some meat


• some vegetables.

Oh, and you should also round up the usual suspects.

I should mention here that my husband is trying to eat no sugars and no white carbs, so our usual suspects do not include sugar. But you might like having it on hand to use in meat and vegetable dishes. Lots of Chinese people do. 1.3 billion people can't be wrong! But everything we make will be free of sugar.

Also, no rice. I do like rice and I have a glorious little rice cooker and have lovely little bowls of rice on my own, but when the man is here we eat man style. Big boy style. So, basically giant plates of meat and vegetables for two big boy style appetites, or three or four normal appetites if you also have rice or other dishes. We do not have other dishes because I'm really sophisticated and like to eat like Gandhi. Not really. It's because I only have one burner on my stove. Moving ahead!

Today's dish is chicken (jīròu,鸡肉) and green beans (sìjìdòu, 四季豆). You can buy the meat in many forms, like a big slab or cut up in little cubes. Or, you know, shaped like a pig face. There's a booth in my market where they sell diced meats for slightly more than giant slabs of meat. That's where I get ground pork, finely sliced pork or, in this case, diced chicken. It's a few cents more per pound but it's call being lazy and that's what my people are good at.

The green beans I bought because they were big and clean and lovely and they were still cheap. Other vegetables are awesome as well, though - try kong xin cai (kōngxīncài, 空心菜), which is a stemmy sort of spinachy thing, or broccoli (xīlánhuā, 西兰花), cauliflower (huācài, 花采), the giant green gourd you see everywhere (dōngguā, 冬瓜), or whatever looks freshest and in-season. I've realized that vegetables in the street markets are always better quality AND cheaper than vegetables in the supermarkets. Especially the garlic (dàsuàn, 大蒜) and ginger (jiāng, 姜).

Very important side note! Go buy yourself lots of garlic and ginger! They make your life awesome. And to enhance the awesomeness that is now your life, find a garlic press and a very sharp, lovely kitchen cleaver. They are the only tools you will really need, and the garlic press saves all sorts of prep time.

So what I did here today was used about this much garlic and this much ginger. This is a good amount for two big boy servings, but really, you can't go wrong. I should have added a little more garlic here probably. Garlic fixes everything that is wrong with mankind. I've also prepared a little bowl with chicken bouillon (about this much). I'll add water to it and mix it up for later - this is my "sauce" for today's dish. We can do other sauces. I'll talk about that later.

OK, now here is the secret to effective stirfy: you can do anything and get away with it as long as you start with garlic and ginger in your oil. Also, not cooking the garlic and ginger very long because you don't really want it to brown. Also, cut everything up beforehand because this will go very fast. Also, that was three secrets but I think I'm pretty much done with the secrets now.

You can use a lot of oil (yóu, 油). I know that seems like it's not good for you but it is. ("If you think oil makes you fat, write me a five page paper citing peer-reviewed scientific journals. Sugar makes you fat." -Erick) Especially if you use a good oil like canola (haven't really found it yet in China but they probably have it if you pay enough) or sunflower. Basically, anything that nature intended to be a liquid at room temperature is happy in your body. Stay away from hydrogenated oils like palm kernel oil or Crisco-type things. Most cooking oil you buy in China (middle-of-the road priced oil, not super cheap but not expensive) should be fine.

Oh, one more note on oils: you may have noticed that Chinese stove burners are exceedingly hot. Like the heat of a thousand suns. So you have to cook with oil that has a high temperature threshold (smoking point). Olive oil doesn't work well here. Nor does sesame oil (zhīmayóu, 芝麻油 / xiāngyóu, 香油). Why do we have sesame oil in the photo of usual suspects, then? Because it is for flavor - always drizzle (a small amount) of sesame oil on at the end - don't cook in it.

Anyway, with about this much oil:

I heat up the garlic and ginger. Not long after, just when they've had a little time to sizzle in there, I throw in my chicken. I stir it around a lot, browning it. Depending on which vegetables you're using and the size of your meat, you can change which order you add them. I like to brown chopped chicken first because it gets a weird white goo if I add it in together with really wet vegetables. It's all still edible, though. Other cases when you might want to add the meat first are chicken wings, other big pieces, or fatty big chunks of pork - just give them a head start. But really, they're going to be fine, and since it's cooking so hot, things will cook through a lot faster than you think.

I add the vegetables in and let them get good and fried up for a good texture before I add the sauce. (My sauce this time is just chicken broth.) The liquid in the sauce is going to steam out, cooking our vegetables and meat all the way through. I like to use the lid for a little while to let it work its magic. If your sauce ever boils all the way out and your vegetables aren't bitable yet or your meat's not done all the way through, simply drizzle just a quarter or third of cup of water in the wok and let it keep cooking. Stir it often, giving everything a chance to cook through.

Yay! Big boy portions!

In this case, the final dish has one of my favorite lighter flavors: ginger/garlic with chicken. This is also a fabulous time to add some chopped green onions (cōng, 葱) or Chinese chives (jiǔcài, 韭菜). And drizzle a slight amount of sesame oil on it before your final stir.

Other sauces, though, can be darker and stronger in flavor - try mixing just a quarter cup of soy sauce with some Chinese vinegar and diluting it with a bit of water. Some people like Hoisin (Hǎixiānjiàng, 海鲜酱) - a fish-based Cantonese sauce. You can just do salt water. You can use chili or black bean sauces (there's a great line of spicy sauces in a jar called Laoganma) for a spicy dish. Add some sugar to a soy sauce/water sauce for a southern Chinese flavor.

When I want to make something extra pungent, I mix up the sauce and garlic early and marinate the meat in it for a couple hours before I cook.

Do you see how flexible and fun this is, though? Take whatever meat you like, add whatever vegetables you like, and flavor it the way you like. Play around with different dishes and see what suits your tastes. And report back when you discover something good!


In my next post: I'll explain all the deep profound mysteries I've learned about soy sauce. 


  1. Your blog is hilarious! You are inspiring me to venture out on the street and prod around in some markets. Thanks!

  2. SO helpful! Thank you, thank you.I will be following your blog and trying to feed our family some delicious food!